WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is emerging as the man to catch in the narrowing Republican presidential field, grabbing a clear head start in fundraising, organization and experience despite vulnerabilities that still might undo him.
With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels becoming the latest respected Republican to forgo a candidacy, many party insiders say the field is largely set. And Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Olympic Games organizer, is in front.
"It's Romney's to lose," said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign. He said Romney's biggest advantages are his personal wealth, fundraising know-how and experience as a 2008 contender, when John McCain won the nomination.
"He has been around the track," Reed said. "He knows from a difficult experience how not to waste time and how not to try to be all things to all people."
If Romney's name is well known, so are his shortcomings. As Massachusetts governor he supported legalized abortion, gay rights and gun control, positions he reversed when he ran for president. He also championed a state health care law that requires residents to obtain insurance. Conservatives despise a similar feature in the Democrats' 2010 federal health law.
Conservatives' unease about Romney's record and consistency could give an opening to others, who have time to raise their profiles and popularity.
"The real battle now is who will be the conservative alternative to Romney," Reed said.
Campaign veterans say Romney's likeliest challengers for now are two former governors with solid resumes but little name recognition and no experience as presidential candidates: Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
Pawlenty formally announced his candidacy Monday in Iowa, although he has campaigned for months there and in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's casting himself as the candidate willing to tell the country hard truths, and, underscoring that point, he bluntly told corn-dependent Iowa that its prized federal subsidies for ethanol should be phased out.
Huntsman, who just finished a stint as ambassador to China, is spending five days campaigning in New Hampshire, which holds its primary shortly after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus in February.
The next tier of candidates includes the well-known Newt Gingrich, who was House speaker in the mid-1990s. Party insiders say Gingrich's legacy of bombastic statements and messy divorces gives him a steep hill to climb.
These party activists give even slimmer chances to other contenders such as former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Pawlenty, unlike Romney and Huntsman, lacks the personal wealth to sustain a campaign for weeks or months without winning major victories to trigger big donations.
"Pawlenty has to win in Iowa," said Republican strategist Rich Galen. That could allow him to survive the next three contests: New Hampshire, where Romney should be strong; Nevada, bordering Huntsman's home state of Utah, and South Carolina, where Gingrich or a lesser-known social conservative might break through.
Pawlenty would have to rack up victories after that. But a strategy of being everyone's second choice might allow him to outlast Romney in the spring of 2012.
Galen thinks Huntsman could be a bigger threat to Romney than Pawlenty. Huntsman's family wealth could buy him time to build an organization and craft a positive image among voters who don't know him.
"Huntsman is a blank page," Galen said. If he does reasonably well in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while winning the Nevada caucus, he could go "all in" in Florida, Galen said. The Sunshine state has proved pivotal in past elections and might again.
Many GOP officials are lukewarm about Romney. Still, he's the best known of the party's current candidates. According to the most recent AP-GfK poll, 66 percent of Republicans nationwide view him favorably, and 22 percent unfavorably. Eleven percent have no opinion. His positive numbers are higher among self-described conservatives (75 percent favorable) and "strong" Republicans (81 percent favorable).
Evangelical Republicans give Romney a 63 percent favorable rating. That suggests his Mormonism might not be a serious problem, although party activists in South Carolina often raise the topic.
Huntsman (who also is Mormon) and Pawlenty are less well known. About half of Republicans have no opinion of Pawlenty. That rises to two-thirds for Huntsman, although the poll was conducted before his New Hampshire trip, which generally drew good reviews.
For all his advantages, Romney has a long way to go to close the deal. In New Hampshire, where he has a vacation home, 32 percent of likely GOP voters say they would vote for Romney if the election were today, says a new CNN/WMUR poll. But an overwhelming majority said they might change their minds in the coming months, opening opportunities for Pawlenty, Huntsman and others.
"Voters in New Hampshire tend to reject the advice of the Washington pundits and the chattering class, and prefer to reach out and give the lesser-known candidates a chance to make their case," said Bob Stevenson, a New Hampshire native who has worked in several GOP campaigns.
Some prominent Republicans want other candidates to jump in. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday he would like to see House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan make a run.
"Paul's about real leadership," Cantor said, pointing to Ryan's crafting of a plan to cut spending and revamp Medicare and Medicaid. "I think that's what this public so desperately wants to see right now."
Real estate mogul Donald Trump, who toyed with a presidential candidacy, told Fox News it's vital "that we choose the right person, and at this moment, I don't see that person."
Republicans are waiting to see if Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a champion of the tea party movement, will run. She has drawn large crowds in Iowa, her native state, and possibly could win the caucus there because of her appeal to social conservatives.
But several campaign veterans think it would be difficult for Bachmann to carry on in New Hampshire, Nevada and beyond. James Garfield was the last president elected directly from the House.
Other names often mentioned include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. All of them, along with Ryan, have said they won't run in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee draws crowds and controversy everywhere she goes. Her approval ratings have fallen in recent months, and party insiders think that she, like 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, is unlikely to surrender her lucrative TV appearances, books and speeches.
"I can't imagine Sarah Palin is going to get into the race and give up all that," Galen said.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Charles Babington covers politics for The Associated Press.